Demolition Man: Ryan Adams

RYAN ADAMS IS not feeling well. “Summertime cold,” he snuffles, and for a while, early on in our conversation, he seems intent on spreading the blues around. A yawn here, an awkward silence there. However, he is obviously a man not entirely unaccustomed to the odd mood swing. It doesn’t take much to perk him up, although the strangest things tend to set him off.

In this instance, the casual revelation that I live in Edinburgh suddenly makes him very happy indeed. “Oh wow! I crept through there a couple of times during the Heartbreaker tour,” he enthuses. “I’m playing there by myself with my guitar and all my sad little songs later on this year.”

But this is a mere appetiser for the really exciting part. “You know, one of my favourite movies is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. That is my favourite film of all time. Made in Edinburgh,” he adds, helpfully. “I’ve got more copies of it than I know what to do with. I’ve seen it maybe a hundred times.” Then, unable to contain himself any longer, Ryan Adams – the man many claim has the mournful ghosts of Gram Parsons, Kurt Cobain and Hank Williams rattling through his youthful bones, the It-kid, the boy-genius, and today at least, a man with a fairly nasty head cold – attempts an impersonation of Dame Maggie Smith’s domineering schoolmarm.

“Little girls!” he squawks, in an accent of indeterminate origin. “I’m in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders…”

Adams himself is an endearing combination of the old and the young, a mixture of mature, downbeat introspection and youthful – even childlike – enthusiasm. He is also whip-smart and exceptionally funny, usually at someone else’s expense. A graduate of the scruffy, puppy-dog cute, charismatic school of rock star, rather than the handsome, brooding type, he constantly runs the risk of being defined by his lifestyle. His love of a good time is legendary. Companions have included Winona Ryder, Alanis Morissette and Beth Orton, he’s been befriended by Elton John and Noel Gallagher, and he is currently the new poster-boy for Gap. Hardly surprising, then, that he’s often labelled as cocky, brattish, a poseur, his ascent viewed with the kind of suspicion aimed at someone to whom the good things in life seem to have come just a little too easily.

It would be all too convenient to let these peripheral distractions get in the way of what he is, which is a remarkably gifted, wildly prolific singer and songwriter who fits squarely into the classic American tradition, with discernible literary influences – Hubert Selby Jr., Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, the odd dash of Southern Gothic – thrown in to taste. Ryan Adams clearly knows what he’s doing, and his rise to the cusp of stardom has been anything but meteoric.

Born on the 5th November, 1974 – coincidentally, on the same date as near namesake Bryan (though there the similarities end) – Adams was raised by his mother in the town of Jacksonville in North Carolina, following his parent’s divorce when he was nine. Later, in his mid-teens, he spent some time in a “punk-rock commune” fronting a band revelling in the splendid name of the Patty Duke Syndrome. By the age of 17, he had moved to Raleigh, and within a couple of years had formed Whiskeytown, leading lights in the fledging US movement with their combination of fiddle-and-guitar driven melody and punkish firepower. Non-stop touring, non-stop drinking and internecine squabbles eventually lead to the demise of the band in 1999, but not before they had made three albums of ascending excellence, culminating in the blissful Pneumonia. Although Whiskeytown hardly set the charts or the airwaves alight, Adams acquired a deserved reputation as a man to watch: an undisciplined talent, certainly, but one with bags of potential and a voice to write home about.

Adams’ reputation as a party boy was also sealed around this time. Although he has never shied away from indulging in the odd piece of self-mythologising, the Whiskeytown days – and beyond – were forged in alcohol and God-knows-what-else. He admits to having calmed down a little recently. “I’m 27 now, so I’m a little bit more conservative than I was,” he drawls, only the barest hint of his Southern origins apparent. “I suspect that people turn you into something that they want to believe, because it makes for a better story. In a way I think I played it up,” he admits, “but in another way, it’s not any different from anybody else who has a regular job. I go out for a drink, but I don’t do heroin, I don’t shoot drugs, I’m not on the streets passing out and falling over. But, y’know, gimme a goddamn cocktail! Maybe even in a clean glass. I feel like I owe it to myself.

“I spend a lot of time trying to have a laugh. Life is too miserable most of the time and I’m just trying to have a halfway decent time. When I work in the studio, we don’t drink at all. Ever. But I do love going out. I suspect I always will. I’d like to be one of those old men who keeps a good bottle of port lying around, and you have your other older friends over and you have your pants up to your fucking eyebrows, reminiscing. That would be great.”

After the end of Whiskeytown, Adams “followed his heart” to New York to be with his new girlfriend. The eventual demise of their relationship hit him hard. He retreated back to Jacksonville, then to Nashville, and eventually scraped himself up off the floor long enough to write some deeply personal, cathartic songs, recorded quickly and released as Heartbreaker in the autumn of 2000. Primarily acoustic, soaked in harmonica and pedal steel, Heartbreaker was a bleak, beautiful masterpiece, recalling nothing so much as Bob Dylan’s end-of-the-affair classic Blood on the Tracks.

Greeted rapturously in the music world, Heartbreaker unequivocally announced Adams as the boy-most-likely-to. He followed it up in September 2001 with the glossier, rockier Gold. Grammy nominated, Gold saw Adams fulfilling his every AM rock fantasy, awash with the ghosts of Van Morrison, The Band, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, The Who and The Rolling Stones. Clearly, here was a singer-songwriter unafraid of mixing it with the big boys. Gold was also the sound of Adams showing off, in the nicest possible sense, showcasing his ability to cover everything from traditional bluegrass banjo hoedowns to hard rock, and all points in between.

Although not necessarily a household name, at least not in the UK, his two solo albums have brought Adams the kind of hipper-than-thou reputation which is accompanied by a ton of attendant pressure. A temperamental type even before fame came knocking at his door, his gigs earlier this year at London’s Brixton Academy were marred by petulance, leading to the inevitable conclusion that fame and adulation were starting to go to his head.

“Oh, I heard about Brixton,” he says. “‘He was in a really bad mood, blah blah blah….’ I don’t know, the band and myself had been touring for quite a considerable amount of time, and I think I was a little tired of playing the Gold tour, playing rock songs. No-one really knew that, and that might have been getting to me.” Six months on from those Brixton shows, Adam is in his adopted hometown of New York discussing his latest release, Demolition. Not so much a new album proper as a collection of waifs and strays from the period immediately before and after the recording of Gold, Demolition features songs Adams holds dear but which didn’t fit the mood of the album. Usually, such enterprises are accompanied by the sound of barrels being scraped. In this instance, however, at least ten of Demolition’s thirteen tracks are a worthy addition to a songbook which is already growing impressively in stature.

Oddly, for someone with an apparent open goal in terms of imminent rock stardom and arena success, Adams now seems reluctant to make the killer move. The time spent since the end of the Gold tour in the spring and the release of Demolition seems to have afforded him fresh perspectives on where he is and what he’s doing. “I don’t really want to be famous, I just want to play music,” he confesses simply. “I don’t think I’m going to get really, really well known. I really don’t look at it like that.” It sounds like he’s preparing to make it a self fulfilling prophecy. “I’m going back on tour just by myself. Just guitar and a piano, like I used to do. The next record, the proper follow-up to Gold – not Demolition but the one that I’m going to start recording – is actually going to sound a lot more like Heartbreaker. Back to the bare bones. I mean, I wanted to make a rock record like Gold, I wanted to try a record like that. It was good fun, but it didn’t define me.”

His return to more personal, introspective music may or may not be viewed as a retreat, a backwards step away from the limelight, but what is certainly clear is that, for all the snipes, Adams remains defiantly driven by music rather than sales figures, pin-up status or fame. He seems a little defensive about the Gap advertising campaign – “It was an hour’s worth of work for a lot of money. They do lots of really good shirts so I get nice shirts” – and admits it has caused him a little more heat on a day-to-day basis. “I always got recognised, but now it’s ridiculous,” he says, referring to New York. “Now it’s a lot of people. But that comes with the package. I was walking into the Oasis show at the Beacon Theatre the other night, and it was insane. People couldn’t believe I was there. Then I was with Beck, we were walking into The White Stripes and The Strokes show, and that was nuts.

“Mostly, in the street, in Central Park or walking on Broadway or stuff like that, it’s fine, but people do kind of get an idea of you in their head. It’s really odd.” He pauses and then, not for the first or last time, makes an abrupt gear shift. You have to be quick to catch him. “But I mean, I’m not nearly as beautiful and talented and famous as say, ooh, umm, Beth Orton. To pick a name out of the hat. I don’t look anywhere near as beautiful lounging in a day-bed chair, reading my Oscar Wilde book wearing a pair of really provocative shoes as uh, I don’t know, say…Beth Orton. I’m working on it. Maybe one day, if I’m like that, then maybe I can be famous too.” And he laughs hard.

Adams’ relationship with British singer Orton has been the stuff of much gossip recently, to the extent that even the tabloids started sniffing about. The pair met last October in London during a recording session, and he guests on her latest record, Daybreaker. Although she has gone on record denying any romance, Adams would appear to have other ideas. He refers to a gig in San Jose where he was with “my girlfriend at the time – the girl I was seeing at the time, you know, who makes records that are fucking better than mine. Lately, I’ve just been taking it easy in the States, watching her crawl all over the Billboard charts. I’ve been throwing food and whatever else!” He pauses and cracks up. “Oh, I’m going to get in so much trouble for this. I don’t care. Bring it on. She can beat me up if she wants to. It doesn’t matter anyway, because I can’t have Sophie Ellis-Bextor, who’s my true love. Oh God, I’ve got it so bad for Sophie Ellis-Bextor.” He pauses to take a breath. “Actually, I think there’s something wrong with me….”

Aside from Orton, (though not, alas, Bextor – yet), Adams has reportedly stepped out with some other famous women. Refreshingly, rather than taking the usual worthy celebrity vow of silence, he seems quietly pleased with himself. “Some of it’s true, some of it’s not true,” he says coyly. “I don’t know, I guess I just have good taste. Usually, when they link me to people, they link me to celebrities who are always very pretty. What can I say? I play guitar and I really like girls. And I really want to be in love. I want to find one who’s The One, so I’m gonna keep on trying.” Admittedly, he’s less than forthcoming about his past relationship with the winsome Winona Ryder, but he is happy to put the ‘Alanis thing’ to bed, so to speak. “We were just making it up. We’re just friends.” He notes my grunt of disbelief and laughs. “Literally, friends. It was a funny little mutual joke between us, because our music is so different. I knew that my fans would be really pissed and weirded out if I was her friend or whatever, that kind of thing. A funny one. Funny between she and I, at least.”

The other high profile relationship in Adams life over the last couple of years has been – bizarrely – with Elton John. John contacted him after falling in love with Heartbreaker and the two became firm friends, much to the chagrin of the British music press, appalled to see their latest hip young thing hanging out and occasionally even sharing a stage with such a terminally uncool figure. To his credit, Adams is touchingly loyal to the Grande Dame of British piano pop. “I haven’t actually spoken to him in a while, I think he’s in France somewhere,” he muses. “Busy, busy. I guess people did get a bit kind of pissed off about it, but what was I gonna do? He was trying to take care of me because I was messed up on drugs and walking around with half a battery part stuck up my nostril. I think he genuinely just really cared about me. He was a friend. People said he was leching onto me, which is sad, but I don’t really care what those people say. If Elton John came to their house and said, ‘Can I have dinner with you?’ they’d be like ‘Oh absolutely.’ Or say, they were in their house and the doorbell rang and someone like, oooh, I dunno, Beth Orton was standing there, they would say, ‘Oh come in, you fabulous thing….’” We both laugh. “I’m going to see how many times I can say her name!” I made it nine.

Having lived in New York for four or five years, Adams is – half-teasingly, I think – threatening to move to London in the near future. “I’m just interested in all things English lately and I don’t know why. There’s a name for what I am, like ‘sycophant’.” Anglophile, perhaps? “I am an Anglophile, thank you very much. When I’m in London I’m usually shit-grinning happy. Last year, I spent most of my holidays and all of my non-working time in England, because I didn’t want to be in the States any more. And luckily I still don’t.” He warms to his theme. “Do you know what I fell asleep watching last night? Absolutely Fabulous. It’s a funny show! I got it on DVD as a gift. But my favourite is The Good Life. I watched re-runs when I was on tour, they would play it when I was outside London on other television stations. That woman who lives with the man with the chickens…damn, she’s hot.”

Musically, Adams fascination with Felicity Kendal and all things British may yet lead his distinctive brand of Americana down some interesting side streets. Certainly, where he decides to head next will be interesting. “I’m doing some recording next week, then in two or three months it will be time to go in and make a new album,” he reveals. Although he originally wanted to record the album with Johnny Marr, the ex- Smiths guitarist is busy, so Adams may now ask ex- Smiths producer John Porter in to oversee proceedings. There seems to be a pattern emerging. “I’ve got a terrible, terrible, terrible Smiths fascination going on lately,” he says, somewhat unnecessarily. “For some reason, they’ve been really relevant to me lately. God, some of those songs can hurt your feelings pretty bad.” He also appears to be one of the few people alive who still holds a torch for Oasis, and his friendship with Noel Gallagher may bear musical fruits at some point. “Noel turned out to be one of the smartest, most amiable, most level headed guys ever,” he gushes. “He was so genuinely nice to me: ‘Hey, sir,’ very cordial. In a kinda formal, funny, nice sort of way. I’m really happy about it.”

Most importantly, he’s trying to come to terms with supporting a football team. Agonising at length over which club he should throw his lot in with – “do you know what team Beth Orton’s behind? I bet she supports Manchester City” – he eventually plumps for Arsenal, but may yet change his mind. “You gotta give me a break, because I don’t know all the teams. I watched the England game in the World Cup, and I was like, ‘Hullo! De-fence!’” I make an odd, disapproving sound. “Listen, maybe I should just tell people I like kung-fu,” he laughs, and off he goes, to write more strange, sad songs that will pull him closer and closer towards the limelight. The boy can’t help it.

© Graeme ThomsonThe Herald, September 2002

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